Sherry Sheng began cultivating a love of gardening at a young age

by: JAN SONNENMAIR - Sherry Sheng and her husband, Spike Wadsworth, enjoy their garden at their home in West Linn along the Willamette River. Sheng has committed $1.2 million from her estate to Oregon State University's Master Gardener program, the largest in the program's 36-year history.A West Linn woman has provided Oregon State University’s Master Gardener program with a commitment for a $1.2 million estate gift to endow a director’s position — the largest gift in the program’s 36-year history.

As part of the OSU Extension Service, the program offers courses on gardening throughout the state and online. Graduates, known as Master Gardeners, are then expected to spread their new knowledge to others by volunteering to answer questions or teach at Extension offices, farmers markets, workshops and community gardens.

Sherry Sheng, who bestowed the gift, completed her Master Gardener training in 2005 and said, for her, gardening has been a lifelong passion.

She began gardening at age 5, and her children helped her in her garden starting at a young age. When she retired in 2004, she said she was excited to garden whenever she wanted, not just on the weekends.

“I think gardening is just a lot of fun, and most people, if they are gardeners, already know that,” she said.

Sheng decided to enroll in the OSU Extension Service’s Master Gardener program to learn the science behind her gardening successes and failures.

“I went through the training and just never looked back,” she said.

In 2011 alone, Sheng contributed more than 1,000 volunteer hours to the program, providing advice to gardeners over the phone, at farmers markets and through a speakers bureau. She also helped develop its 10-Minute University program.

“As the name suggests, we take science-based information, distill it down to the bare essentials and put together very short handouts and do short classes,” she said. “The program is very popular, I think, primarily because we make things very simple; we break it down.”

Last year the 10-Minute University reached more than 1,800 people.

“Over the years of active involvement, I’ve seen firsthand how the (Master Gardener) program serves a lot of people and really makes a difference in people’s lives,” Sheng said.

She said her students have said that, as the result of the program, they’ve been able to eat healthier, use less chemicals while gardening and get excited about what they’ve grown.

“These are all just examples of what I see firsthand and, if you multiply that by roughly 4,000 — the total number of Master Gardeners in the state — you can’t help but think about what a good program it is.”

Sheng said the extent of volunteer involvement in the Master Gardener program isn’t widely known.

“Faculty members teach volunteers and then the volunteers are the foot soldiers who do the work in the community,” she said. “If you think about that kind of model, the leverage is absolutely incredible. A little bit of public investment goes a long way.

“I think that’s part of the reason I feel such a strong commitment to helping make sure the program is sustained and is successful — because it is such a good and efficient model.”

According to the OSU Extension Service, last year Master Gardener volunteers made more than 200,000 public contacts statewide in the 30 counties in which the program operates through plant clinics, public gardening classes, demonstration days and other activities.

Their donated hours were the equivalent of more than 85 full-time staff. They also contributed more than 10,000 pounds of fresh produce, harvested from Master Gardener-managed community and demonstration gardens, to local food banks and food pantries.

Sheng has pledged a gift that will establish an endowed professorship in perpetuity — a statewide director that will coordinate with volunteers at the county level to ensure that there is high-quality curriculum and instruction available.

“I just want to make sure that I do what I can to give it a solid foundation to sustain the program,” she said, especially with ever-decreasing public funding. “I’m a firm believer that, even though we all benefit from public programs and we should continue to support these public programs through our taxes, voluntary, private contributions should also be part of the picture.”

The Y. Sherry Sheng and Spike Wadsworth Endowment Fund, a planned gift, will become available to the program through Sheng’s estate after she passes away.

“(Gardening provides) such a tremendous sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, and it’s something that is so healthy for oneself — not only what we can eat, but just the way we feed our spirit,” she said. “If everyone in the world were a gardener, the world would be a much better place.”

For more information on the Master Gardener program, visit For more information about its activities in Clackamas County, visit

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